Ubiquitous with New York’s bohemian culture, the West Village is intimate and homey, and despite changes in surrounding areas, has remained close to its artisan roots. Tree lined, cobblestone streets are commonplace here and the area is full of pristine single family brownstones and townhouses as well as pre-war apartments, many of which are less than five stories high. Apartments usually have plenty of windows, courtyards, trees, great gardens, plus lots of delightful details and features. Noted for its “small town feel,” the West Village offers a more casual, comfortable approach to city living. Highlighted by intimate dining venues, numerous nightspots, the Hudson River Park, and convenient transportation, the West Village remains one of the most sought after destinations in Manhattan.
With an established music and art scene, funky shops, bars and an eclectic palette, the East Village truly defines what it means to be hip. Once known as the grittier end of the Village, the neighborhood today now rivals its western neighbor in both safety and desirability. Convenient to Midtown, Gramercy, Union Square, SoHo and the Lower East Side, the East Village offers a genuine downtown feel at typically lower prices than other lower Manhattan neighborhoods. What it may lack in transit lines however, it more than makes up for in hip culture and edgy attitude.
NoHo, which stands for “North of Houston” Street, is a mini-neighborhood that sits in the middle of Lower Manhattan between two other very well-known districts: Greenwich Village and the East Village. Since it is not really a typical neighborhood in the official sense, its boundaries are often in dispute among New Yorkers, however the fact is that NoHo – from Houston to 8th Street and from Mercer Street to the Bowery – is indeed not only a real neighborhood, but an historic district as well. Waves of gentrification and economic spillover from nearby SoHo have filled the area with up-and-coming artists and fashion designers, and have also sent rents through the roof here in years of late. Suddenly, quaint antique stores replaced rundown storefronts on many streets, chic restaurants started popping up, and loft prices continued to rise, making NoHo a vibrant, viable community. While the area does not have the history of its neighboring Village nor the glamour of SoHo, Bond Street, which was one of the city’s most fashionable streets in the 1830s, is again coming into its own. Back in the 19th century, when Lafayette Street was Lafayette Place, the Vanderbilts, Astors and Delanos all had townhouses on the broad thoroughfare, where spacious loft apartments in cast-iron and Romanesque Revival buildings today stand in a row and draw new types of residents.
Until recently, this area between the Hudson River and Ninth Avenue, from Gansevoort Street to West 14th Street, seemed immune to gentrification because of its industrial purpose and geography. Since the late ‘90s, however, when high-fashion stores, art galleries and quaint bakeshops inhabited the area, slinging meat and accompanying odors seemed to suddenly be no problem. A crackdown on crime and the expansion of housing and small business further popularized the Meatpacking District.
Still here are the overnight beef and poultry movers for which the district is known, as well as the industrial environment that contribute to the area’s fringe character. But ambitious gallery owners, photographers, new-media moguls, retailers seeing affordable space, and even developers have turned Manhattan’s last frontier into chic. Rising rents in surrounding SoHo, TriBeCa and the East Village have pushed locals to snatch up the large, unfinished warehouses of abandoned meat-processing plants and automotive stores for renovation as residences.
Gansevoort Street marks the great divide that splits New York’s meat market, where meat is cut, packaged and distributed for delivery, and a charming residential area with streets filled with historic brownstones, converted factories and low-rise apartments. The meat market itself, extending north from Gansevoort to West 15th Street, is zoned for manufacturing, and few people live there. The area has a long proud history as a marketplace, which is still a permanent fixture that seems not to bother residents, as it prevents an overabundance of high-rises moving in. Yet south lives a dynamic mix of people from all walks of life. Near the Hudson River, former quarters of meatpackers and other industries, many of the buildings have been converted to housing, with some new residential buildings erected. The recent era of change began in 1969, when work began on Westbeth, the former site of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Today, with 384 units of federally-subsidized artist housing and the Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay and lesbian synagogue, Westbeth has an eight-year waiting list.
The history of Greenwich Village is fascinating, and lends directly to what naturally spilled over creating the history and development of its neighboring East Village section. In 1626, the Dutch purchased Manhattan Island from the Indians, and at that time, the area we now know as Greenwich Village was primarily a woodland in which deer, elk, woodchuck and other creatures roamed free. The Village soon became known as the best tobacco plantation in the colony, and under the direction of the Dutch West India Company, tobacco plantations flourished. After the British captured Nieuw Amsterdam in 1664, a commander of the fleet of English warships named Sir Peter Warren in 1731 bought a large portion of The Village plantation, where he and his family lived in a beautiful mansion overlooking the Hudson River (where Perry & West 4th Streets now meet). He named his farm Greenwich, and in the 1750s and 60s, the surrounding area attracted many wellto- do families who also built grand country-style homes.
During the 1822 smallpox and yellow fever epidemics which devastated NYC’s population, though miles south of Greenwich Village borders, families fled north to the area and settled there permanently. Business and banks were quickly built, and by 1850 The Village’s Washington Square section was the place where successful merchants built their grand townhouses…a gentrification which transformed the entire country village into a thriving town unto itself.
By the end of the 19th century, however, wealthier residents began moving uptown to more “fashionable” areas, while the residential buildings in The Village were becoming run down by absentee landlords. Eventually the rents came down, attracting artists, radical and intellectual rebels who saw The Village as an adjunct to Paris. The secret that the area was a great place to live “the free life” as it was then called was out by the early decades of the 20th century, and during the first World War The Village symbolized the repudiation of traditional values. The 1940s, 50s and 60s marked the tail-end of bohemian life, as beat poets and coffee house existentialists intermingled with a new breed of intellects – rebel actors who studied the “Method” with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio.
The counterculture of off-off Broadway and angry coffee house poetry continued in The Village and elsewhere into the 1970s, but by then the “movement” was labeled a “sexual revolution.” So emerged women’s lib, and gay liberation. Many artists, writers and actors who could indulge in free experiences and artistic experimentation from the 1900s through the 1970s found that by the 1980s, they could no longer afford to live in the area due to escalating real estate costs and the invasion of young professionals.
The East Village and Alphabet City became the closest solution. The gritty dwellings of the East Village, bounded by 14th Street to the north, Fourth Avenue of the Bowery on the West, East Houston Street to the South, and the East River, have housed immigrant families since the mid-1800s, though the cultural makeup of those families changes continually. When the Third Avenue El was taken down in 1955, a longtime psychological boundary line went with it, permitting the Greenwich Village “state of mind” to travel further east. The 1970s brought a bohemian counterculture of hippies, experimental artists, writers and students all attracted to the inexpensive living space in the area, and by the East Village’s burgeoning reputation as a progressive neighborhood.
The name it holds is fairly recent, as the East Village was once only the northern part of the Lower East Side, and is still called “Loisada” by its Latino inhabitants. By 1961, after real estate developers tried to borrow the cachet of its western neighbor in order to upgrade the area’s image (their first try was “Village East”), the branding of “East Village” stuck, and it has today become one of the most interesting and animated neighborhoods of Manhattan.
During the 1980s, artists seeking refuge from skyrocketing SoHo real estate prices came to the area, bringing with them new restaurants, shops, even cleaner streets. Longtime arts establishments like the Classic Stage Company, La Mama E.T.C. and St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery soon were kept company by newer institutions such as P.S. 122 plus several hot galleries that opened in narrow East Village storefronts. Though the gallery scene, which only lasted a few years, did manage to drive up rents substantially on some streets, it did not affect all of the neighborhood’s original residents. Today the East Village enjoys an exciting blend of people: artistic types, young professionals, students, and longtime members of various immigrant communities, principally Eastern European and Latino groups.
Of late, the neighborhood’s traditional gentrification frontier has spread East from Avenue A to Avenue C, making Alphabet City an avant-garde place to be with everything from edgy to chic restaurants, bars and shops. Beyond First Avenue, the North-South avenues all labeled with letters, not numbers, give Alphabet City its nickname. What was once a burned-out territory of slums and drug houses benefited from the rising East Village art scene and spillover into the area in the mid-1980s. Now, Alphabet City is changing at a blinding pace. New residential developments are common and the area has become a hot destination while still retaining its distinct character.
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